Liliana Velásquez, 19, lives in Wynnewood, is about to move into her own apartment, and is studying to be a nurse.
She's also a published author. Her book Dreams and Nightmares / Sueños y Pesadillas has recently been published by Parlor Press. Storyteller and author Mark Lyons has edited and translated her Spanish account; the English faces the Spanish, as Arizona faces Sonora. Velásquez will read from Dreams and Nightmares at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the PhillyCAM Community Room, 699 Ranstead St. in Center City.
What a story that book tells. When she was 14, Velásquez left her abusive family and poverty-stricken village of Villaflor in the mountains of Guatemala and traveled more than 2,000 miles to the United States. She was one of 38,759 unaccompanied minor immigrants that year – a number that grew to more than 59,600 in 2016.
She was robbed by narcotraficantes and hitched rides on "La Bestia," the network of trains emigrants take to travel the length of Mexico to the border. (Its dark nicknames include "The Train of Death" and "The Train of the Unknowns.") She was detained by Mexican federales but talked them into letting her go. She did cross the border, but after "two nights of running and hiding," she was arrested by immigration authorities in the midst of the Sonora Desert in Arizona.
Yet here she is, documented, studying for a career – and ready to get on with her life.
Sometimes, she says, she thinks about her ordeal and can't believe it. "It wasn't easy to write a book like this," she says. "I had the idea for a long time when I lived in Guatemala. I used to think, 'If this house could talk, it will be a witness to my suffering.' "
"Her family in Guatemala was so dysfunctional and violent she doesn't romanticize it, although she has forgiven them," says Lyons. "She misses them and loves them and is supporting them, sending them money, but she has no desire to go home."
Even reviewing drafts of the book was hard: "When I was writing with Mark," Velásquez says, "and I was reviewing the story, it was very difficult to relive those things. I feel I don't want to read all those things again and think about all the things I went through. I want to focus on my English."
By the way, her English is pretty good, considering that five years ago, in her own words, "I didn't know any." But she's not satisfied.
Under U.S. immigration law, minors who cross the border unaccompanied, and who are either abandoned or abused in their home country, may be eligible for special immigrant juvenile status. "It's very much like asylum," Lyons says. "If you get it, you get a green card and work permit."
"When I first come here, it was very hard," Velásquez says. A first foster family placement didn't work. At length, she found what she calls la familia de mis sueños, "the family of my dreams," that of Layla and Marcos Luria in Wynnewood. At the demanding Lower Merion High School, she floundered at first, but things improved when she began to split her time between there and Montgomery County Technical High School, where she discovered a program in health occupations.
In Villaflor, she says, she had no thought of being a nurse. "It was hard to be in school, and I only had one grade," she says. Her village had no medical facilities and, for a long time, no electricity. "My little sister broke her arm, and my father had to carry her for three hours and get a ride on a truck for two more hours to find a hospital. When I came here and thought what I wanted to do, I was at the vocational school, and I saw the program and really liked it."
She is now, she says with pride, "the first one of my family to graduate from high school." And the vocational school has given her a full scholarship to continue her studies at Montgomery County Community College.
Lyons, director of the Philadelphia Storytelling Project, says he was doing a reading from his book Brief Eulogies at Roadside Shrines when Velásquez, along with her foster mother, Layla Ware, approached him. "She said simply, 'I want to write a book about my story. Will you help me?' "
The rest, Lyons says, is all her. "She was at Narberth Bookshop on Thursday night," he says with admiration, "and she not only read parts of her book, but she answered questions in English for 45 minutes. We must have had about 70 people there." Those people included high school and college teachers interested in using her book in their courses. He has created a teachers' guide at the book's website, dreamsandnightmares.org.
"By telling my story, I feel at peace, unburdened," Liliana Velásquez writes in her book, using the beautiful Spanish word desahogada. "All of my suffering, and all of my dreams – my destiny – are now kept safe in this book."